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Study: Grasslands served as setting for early human evolution
by Brooks Hays
New York (UPI) Jun 9, 2016


Scientists find 5,000-year-old livestock pens in Spain
Barcelona, Spain (UPI) Jun 9, 2016 - The excavation of an ancient rock shelter in northern Spain has yielded evidence of 5,000-year-old livestock pens. The ancient structures offer some of the earliest evidence of the use of rock walls to secure livestock in the region.

Scientists have previously documented livestock enclosures among ancient settlements of Sierra de Cantabria, the mountain range in the Spanish province of Alava, but this is the first time researchers have used a combination of geological and paleobotanical evidence to do so.

The research team -- including scientists from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Barcelona -- confirmed the purpose of the rock shelter through analysis of charcoal, pollen, seeds and other plant remains.

Scientists hope continued analysis of the site will illuminate the nature of the early agropastoral groups that settled and migrated across the Basque Country several thousand years ago during the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age.

The time period marks a transitional phase in European prehistory, when hunter-gatherer groups came into contact with migrating people from the east who brought traditions of subsistence farming.

The sedimentary and paleobotanical findings suggest the rock shelter was not in continual use but was likely used for brief periods of time as herders followed resources across the region. It's possible a more permanent settlement existed nearby.

"We also know thanks to the microscopic study of the sediments that every now and again they used to burn the debris that had built up, probably to clean up the space that had been occupied," researcher Ana Polo-Diaz, an archaeologist with the University of the Basque Country, said in a news release.

Ancient pollen suggests the area once featured a forest of hazelnut and oak trees. The trees likely provided wood for shelter for the human travelers and food for animals.

Researchers published their latest findings in the journal Quaternary International.

New geologic evidence supports the theory that the transition from forest to grassland encouraged key adaptations during early human evolution.

Genetic analysis suggests the first hominins split from chimpanzees roughly 6 to 7 million years ago. During that time, scientists believe climate change precipitated a shift in the vegetation of East Africa, from dense forest to savanna.

The thinking goes that fewer trees and new wide open spaces forced the first hominins to take to the ground and adapt to a new environment. They developed a larger brain for problem solving, bipedalism for covering greater distances and more sophisticated social structures as a result of increased interaction.

A new study, published in the journal PNAS, offers the most extensive evidence yet of a climatic shift around the time of the appearance of the first hominins. The study focuses on paleobotanical evidence from Ethiopia and Kenya, thought to the birthplace of humans.

The new evidence comes from the sediment cores collected from the bottom of the Red Sea and the western Indian Ocean. They contain evidence of ancient plant life that blew out to sea and sank millions of years ago.

Scientists analyzed carbon-based chemicals called alkanes found in the plant remains. These chemical signatures can be matched to different plant types. Samples older than 10 million years feature higher concentrations of alkanes associated with the types of photosynthesis carried out by woody plants like trees, while younger samples yielded larger amounts of alkanes linked to grasses.

"The entire evolution of our lineage has involved us living and working in or near grasslands," lead study author Kevin Uno, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a news release. "This now gives us a timeline for the development of those grasses, and tells us they were part of our evolution from the very beginning."

Researchers say the grasslands were likely patchy at first, and that a number of other ecological factors likely shaped the evolution of the first hominins. But grasslands played a role, and as they expanded, they continued to influence the competition and interactions among the earliest humans.

"Lots of people have conjectured that grasslands had a central role in human evolution," said co-author Peter deMenocal, a climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty. "But everyone has been waffling about when those grasslands emerged and how widespread they were. This really helps answer the question."


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ABOUT US
Scientists find 5,000-year-old livestock pens in Spain
Barcelona, Spain (UPI) Jun 9, 2016
The excavation of an ancient rock shelter in northern Spain has yielded evidence of 5,000-year-old livestock pens. The ancient structures offer some of the earliest evidence of the use of rock walls to secure livestock in the region. Scientists have previously documented livestock enclosures among ancient settlements of Sierra de Cantabria, the mountain range in the Spanish province of ... read more


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Study: Grasslands served as setting for early human evolution

Scientists find 5,000-year-old livestock pens in Spain




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